PONCIA: All we have is our hands and a hole in God's earth.
This statement, which aligns well with Lorca's view on death, poses an implicit challenge to all the forces that beleaguer the women in the play. The world in which the Albas live is one of deep and severe repression, one that drives them to bitterness towards one another, frightened to ever challenge the status quo. And yet La Poncia is aware that giving in to such a world is foolish, since nobody truly has or owns anything. Everyone, from the relatively rich Bernada or her husband, to the poor hunchback Martirio, has nothing but herself and her impending death. It is a call for action that La Poncia never follows, and only Adela has the strength to realize. And yet what makes the play so tragic is that despite such a rallying cry, the tragic forces are too strong and even Adela is brought down to an untimely death. The power of the individual is not enough.
MAGDALENA: …I know I'm not going to marry. I'd rather carry sacks to the mill. Anything except sit here day after day in this dark room.
BERNARDA: That's what a woman is for.
MAGDALENA: Cursed be all women.
BERNARDA: In this house you'll do what I order. You can't run with the story to your father any more. Needle and thread for women. Whiplash and mules for men. That's the way it has to be for people who have certain obligations.
This exchange reveals one of the play's most intense critiques, that of the way women are kept repressed to the point of self-hatred. There are two levels of self-hatred represented here. The first is in Magdalena. Because of her limitations – she has no outlet for individuality unless she gets married, and yet she will not be able to get married without a dowry – she is doomed to a painful repetitive life that she despises. She hates herself. However, perhaps the worse self-hatred represented here is in Bernarda. She has very firm ideas about what a woman should do - "needle and thread," which speaks to service and loneliness – whereas men get to express their liveliness outside. What's perhaps most depressing of all is that Bernarda has not only accepted this truth (so has Magdalena, after all), but that Bernarda deliberately reinforces this order, with a type of perverse glee. She has come to believe that women are naturally inferior, which means that those under her authority are unlikely to ever transcend their limitations.
BERNARDA: … Oh, what one has to go through and put up with so people will be decent and not too wild!
PONCIA: It's just that your daughters are of an age when they ought to have husbands. Mighty little trouble they give you. Angustias must be much more than thirty now.
BERNARDA: Exactly thirty-nine.
PONCIA: (furiously) And she's never had a beau…
BERNARDA: None of them has ever had a beau and they've never needed one! They get along very well.
In the midst of the main argument between La Poncia and Bernarda, the latter reveals how deeply her desire for repression goes. She does not only want to limit her daughters from embarrassing her through their behavior (if they are "too wild," then people will talk), but she actually wants to deprive them of a husband. We know that in the past, she has done so to Martirio and now she wants it for all of them. She is willing to let Angustias go only because Angustias is so old. Bernarda honestly believes that the girls would be better not tying themselves to a man who can use "whiplash and mule" to further repress them. Whether Bernarda is blind or unusually sensitive to how terrible the world can be to a woman is a subject for discussion.
MARTIRIO: She's afraid of our mother. Mother is the only one who knows the story of Adelaida's father and where he got his lands. Everytime she comes here, Mother twists the knife in the wound. Her father killed his first wife's husband in Cuba so he could marry her himself. Then he left her there and went off with another woman who already had one daughter, and then he took up with this other girl, Adelaida's mother, and married her after his second wife died insane.
AMELIA: But why isn't a man like that put in jail?
MARTIRIO: Because men help each other cover up things like that and no one's able to tell on them.
AMELIA: But Adelaida's not to blame for any of that.
MARTIRIO: No. But history repeats itself. I can see that everything is a terrible repetition.
In Martirio's story about a local family whose patriarch practiced cruel incest, there is some character detail about Bernarda, about her unusual command of local gossip and the way she uses it to her advantage. However, what is most clear in this exchange is a depiction of the different expectations the world has for men and women. As Martirio says, men are able to do whatever they want, and not only are excused for it, but are expected to act in that way. There is a terrible imbalance: woman are not allowed to show any sexual energy without being punished, whereas men are expected to show sexual feelings to the point of depravity. Adelaida is punished by the community despite her being the victim, whereas her father/husband is let off the hook. These expectations have engendered a sad apathy – it is a terrible "repetition" that leads someone like Martirio simply to embroil herself in sadness and accept her suffering, rather than to actively confront it.
ADELA: I'm thinking that this mourning has caught me at the worst moment of my life for me to bear it.
MAGDALENA: You'll get used to it.
ADELA: (bursting out, crying with rage) I will not get used to it! I can't be locked up. I don't want my skin to look like yours. I don't want my skin's whiteness lost in these rooms. Tomorrow I'm going to put on my green dress and go walking in the streets. I want to go out!
Adela reveals two strong facets of her character in this exchange. Magdalena, who has embraced the mourning perhaps more fully than any of the others (we get the sense she was closest to her father), suggests that Adela needs to learn to quash her rebellious individual feelings and learn to live under the expected repression. Adela, in her response, first shows her individual spirit. Unlike any of the other daughters, she refuses to "get used to it." Instead, she wants to wear her "green dress," her symbol of individuality and thereby flaunt the strictures that keep women in black. However, Adela also indicates a touch of her meanness when she mocks Magdalena's skin. Despite her seeming individuality and transcendence of the repressive limitations, we see on several occasions how Adela has grown bitter, how she is a victim of the meanness brought on by repression. Nobody can ever fully escape, which is the essence of tragedy.
PONCIA: Then he acted very decently. Instead of getting some other idea, he went for raising birds, until he died. You aren't married but it's good for you to know, anyway, that two weeks after the wedding a man gives up the bed for the table, then the table for the tavern, and the woman who doesn't like it can just rot, weeping in a corner.
This passage, taken from La Poncia's story about her late husband, provides a counterpoint to the idea of marriage as salvation. The girls live under Bernarda's strict repression and as such idealize marriage as a way out, a way not only to escape their mother's tyrannical eye but also to express their sexuality in a legitimate way. However, La Poncia makes clear in her story that marriage is merely another type of repression for a woman. Following the first part of her story, in which she indicates that she had a degree of power in the first stages of her relationship with her husband, here she reveals not only that marriage offers only a small, short sexual fulfillment, but also that the woman will have to learn to accept this injustice. Much as she counsels the daughters to accept their mother's strictures, so does she make clear that they will either need to accept the limitations of marriage or they will "rot" in suffering. In other words, there is no full salvation for females in a world immersed in repression.
PONCIA: Don't defy me, Adela, don't defy me! Because I can shout, light lamps, and make bells ring.
ADELA: Bring four thousand yellow flares and set them about the walls of the yard. No one can stop what has to happen.
PONCIA: You like him that much?
ADELA: That much! Looking in his eyes I seem to drink his blood in slowly.
PONCIA: I won't listen to you.
ADELA: Well, you'll have to! I've been afraid of you. But now I'm stronger than you!
A tragedy, in which an individual attempts to flaunt his or her spirited individuality in the face of immovable forces, requires that individual to have a heroic strength and desire. In this exchange, Adela pronounces the desire for which she will ultimately suffer in the face of the tragic repressive forces in the world. La Poncia, who time and time again is the most grounded voice for accepting the repressions women must face, offers Adela practical advice through their conversation, but Adela heroically flaunts such advice. She will triumph for love and individuality, and it is this unflinching desire that makes her death not just sad, but tragic, since she dies despite her best efforts. What adds a level of irony to Adela's persistence is the potential lack of worth in Pepe. He does not strike one as an admirable man, and indeed seems representative of the hypocrisy and ugliness of which men in their community are capable. The fact that Adela defines her own individuality in terms of him suggests that even at her most heroic, she is still unable to see herself except through the lens of a relationship with a man.
BERNARDA: Silence, I say! I saw the storm coming but I didn't think it'd burst so soon. Oh, what an avalanche of hate you've thrown on my heart! But I'm not old yet – I have five chains for you, and this house my father built, so not even the weeds will know of my desolation. Out of here!
([The daughters] go out. Bernarda sits down desolately. La Poncia is standing close to the wall. Bernarda recovers herself, and beats on the floor.)
I'll have to let them feel the weight of my hand! Bernarda, remember your duty!
In this speech, in part directed toward her daughters, in part toward La Poncia, and in part toward herself, Bernarda reveals not only her philosophy of repression but also gives window into the reasons for it. She acknowledges that she is not oblivious to the truth of female sexuality, but in fact takes pains to prevent the "avalanche" of repressed sexuality from coming. Her philosophy is not that people are good, but that they must be kept repressed so as not to let their 'badness,' or sense of an individual spirit, come out. The second half of her speech reveals to us that these tyrannical activities are not something she does out of cruelty, but instead because they are "her duty." By keeping the girls under strict physical confines, she might keep them from hurting themselves. It's a sad truth that Bernarda, in trying to make 'good' daughters, keeps her daughters from being themselves.
BERNARDA: And let whoever loses her decency pay for it!
(Outside a woman's shriek and a great clamor is heard.)
ADELA: Let her escape! Don't you go out!
MARTIRIO: (looking at Adela) Let her pay what she owes!
BERNARDA: (at the archway) Finish her before the guards come! Hot coals in the place where she sinned!
ADELA: (holding her belly) No! No!
BERNARDA: Kill her! Kill her!
This exchange, which ends Act II, provides dramatic irony that makes the end, when Adela kills herself, all the more tragic. In the same way the tragedy of Oedipus is greater because he unknowingly pronounces banishment on whoever has caused the curse, so does Bernarda here, when talking about the village girl who had a child out of wedlock and killed the child, unknowingly pronounce death on her own daughter. We know from other statements of Bernarda that she does not realize she is hurting the girls, and in fact that her tyranny comes from perverse love. So she would not want to damn Adela, and yet that is exactly what she is doing. So pervasive are the tragic forces of repression that Bernarda commits to them without realizing how terrible they can actually be.
MARIA JOSEFA: When my neighbor had a baby, I'd carry her some chocolate and later she'd bring me some, and so on - always and always and always. You'll have white hair, but your neighbors won't come. Now I have to go away, but I'm afraid the dogs will bite me. Won't you come with me as far as the fields? I don't like fields. I like houses, but open houses, and the neighbor women asleep in their beds with their little tiny tots, and the men outside sitting in their chairs. Pepe el Romano is a giant. All of you love him. But he's going to devour you because you're grains of wheat. No, not grains of wheat. Frogs with no tongues!
Though it's easy to write off Maria Josefa's final speeches as the ranting of a senile old woman, there are grains of prophetic wisdom in them. They are extremely poetic and theatrical examinations of the major themes of the play. In this speech, she addresses the female desire to have a baby. It's not motherhood that draws her towards having a baby, but rather the sexuality that is implied by it. Further, the baby she speaks of in this scene is the lamb she is holding, which equates her sexuality with innocence, a far cry from the depraved nature of Bernarda's tyranny. Further, Maria Josefa does not equate Pepe with innocence, but rather with danger. She says he will devour them all, because they are all infatuated with him. They all have been hardened into repressed, mean people who cannot experience the beauty of imagination, of going far away like Maria Josefa herself does ("to the fields"), even if that escape is only in her imagination. She pronounces the tragic end – they will be devoured because they cannot properly appreciate the way sexuality can bring release.
The House of Bernarda Alba Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The House of Bernarda Alba is a great
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